We laugh every day – it’s the glue that holds us together...
HAVING RECOVERED FROM A TERRIFYING HEALTH CRISIS, FORMER GOGGLEBOX STAR STEPH PARKER TELLS GABRIELLE FAGAN ABOUT HER SON’S AUTISM AND HOW SHE COPES WITH THE DEMANDS OF FAMILY LIFE
STEPH PARKER can’t really recall being “minutes from death” after developing double pneumonia.
“I had started going a bit mad because I had no oxygen in my system,” says Steph, 52, who found fame with her husband Dom as Gogglebox’s entertaining, witty and boozy armchair critics. “I didn’t realise how seriously ill I was because when you are that sick, you don’t know what’s going on at all.”
The couple run a Kent B&B as well as juggling their radio and TV commitments (they quit Gogglebox in late 2016) and have two children – daughter, Honor, 15, and 18-year-old son Max, who has autism and severe epilepsy.
“Life’s very busy – I also help my sister with our father, who has dementia – and sometimes I feel my feet never touch the ground,” adds Steph, whose health crisis happened at Christmas. “I think with the festivities on top, I’d pushed myself too far and it was just sheer exhaustion that allowed infection in.
“I’d had a bad cough and felt run down but I just got worse very quickly. Dom called an ambulance on Boxing Day. The paramedics told him that if I’d been left another 20 minutes, I might have died.
“My lungs had given up and I was rushed to intensive care and pumped full of antibiotics.
“I got an infection in my heart so I was kept in a while longer, but thankfully I got through it all.
“It’s taken months to get over it – not just the illness but the shock.
“I still get tired quite easily but apart from that, there’s no lasting effect,” explains Steph, who alongside Dom, has teamed up with Boots UK to promote its new online prescription service.
“I’ve been very good at looking after everybody else but not paid much attention to my own care.
“It was very close to going disastrously wrong, and I know now it’s important,” she adds.
“If I break down then everyone else around me breaks. I have to take responsibility for my health for the sake of myself and the family.”
She has heightened awareness of this because of Max’s needs.
Seizures since he was four have left him with a mental age of six, and they live in constant dread that Max will one day have a fatal seizure.
The couple bravely revealed his condition earlier this year in a moving Channel 4 documentary, Steph & Dom: Can Cannabis Save Our Son? (available on All4).
Some research has shown that medical marijuana/CBD may effectively control certain seizures, but there is controversy over allowing the treatment in the UK.
Two months ago, Max joined an “early access” programme and is receiving treatment over 20 weeks.
Steph is emotional as she reveals Max recently gave Dom a “huge hug, a proper hug”.
“That’s never happened before in 18 years because Max doesn’t like to be touched. Dom was so shocked he nearly fell to the ground.
“I’ve never had a hug, never. All I’ll get is a headbutt in my chest, so to see him spontaneously run up to daddy and put his arms around him was unbelievable. It was amazing and made both of us cry.
“Since he’s been on the treatment – we’re about halfway through – there’s definitely been an improvement in his mental awareness.”
They’ve also noticed improvement in Max’s communication.
“His speech is very poor but at the moment we’re getting full sentences and he’s using the right words.
“We’re staggered as we’ve never had that before.”
Wary after so many years of dashed hopes, she’s determined not to become over-excited however.
“We have to manage our expectations. This treatment is one in a long line of things that have been tried and it may have no (permanent) effect.
“I have to be clear about that, otherwise you just get your heart broken every five minutes.”
There’s no trace of self-pity in this warm, down-to-earth woman, who explains that humour is the shield she and Dom, 53, use to help them cope with life’s challenges and their worry about Max, who can suffer up to 120 seizures a day.
“We laugh every day. We have to – not because we’re irreverent, disrespectful, or thoughtless, but because it’s the glue that holds us together and keeps us from being very sad,” she says.
“The early days, when Max was little and we didn’t understand what was wrong, were terrifying. At first we thought he might get better in time, but as the years have gone by there’s been a slow erosion of hope. We’ve managed by literally taking one step at a time. People say, ‘How do you cope?’ But you cope because you have no choice.
She describes reliving what they’ve gone through for the documentary as a “giant step”.
“It was very hard and moving, but we hoped that if we could use being well-known to go public with his story and move things forward, and help Max and the other youngsters that suffer, it was worth it.”
Steph and Dom – first spotted in 2013 on Channel 4’s Four In A Bed reality show about B&B owners – were a hit on Gogglebox, which launched their showbiz career.
They now host a Talk Radio show and are filming a new Channel 4 series on couples changing their lives to run country B&Bs.
Their partnership is at the heart of Steph’s wellbeing. “Being with Dom and going through everything together, talking about our day, going through things with a fine-tooth comb so we totally understand what’s going on and what we both feel is crucial to my wellbeing and, of course, so is the family and friendship.”
She looks back on Gogglebox – the pair dubbed themselves ‘the P****d Posh Couple’ – with affection but doesn’t miss it.
“We’d said all we had to say and it was time to move on. It has to be kept fresh with different people. But that show changed the direction of our lives and it’s been a whirlwind that’s never really stopped. You can’t buy this sort of experience at my age. It’s been absolutely bonkers.
“I don’t think of myself as a celebrity in any way and I don’t think the public view us like that.
“I think they like us because we’re completely normal, just like everybody else, glass in hand wanting to have a good time, a laugh and make the best of everything and not be too judgemental.”
Steph adds with a smile: “When we’re not working, we still like to spend most of our time curled up in front of the telly with a large glass of red. Come to think of it, that would be my ideal exit from life – I’d like to close my eyes and go to sleep and not spill my red!”
■ Steph Parker is partnering with Boots UK to launch its new, improved Free Online NHS Repeat Prescription Service, helping families manage their medication needs. Download the Boots app or visit Boots.com/ NHS for more details.
Steph Parker and her husband Dom
Steph & Dom Parker, with their son Max for the Can Cannabis Save Our Son? documentary